Last Friday, I had the unique experience of spending the entire morning helping to harvest organic olives that are now being pressed into oil. The olive trees belong to my son Zion and his wife, Rivka, residents of the new town of Bnei Netzarim in the Halutza area of the Negev, near the meeting point of the Israeli, Egyptian and Gaza borders.

A bit of background: In the summer of 2005, as part of the Israeli government’s disengagement plan, the residents of Gush Katif and nearby towns in the Gaza Strip (as well as settlements in Northern Samaria) were expelled from their homes. After a chaotic and ill-planned resettlement, people found themselves in a wide variety of locations, where they tried to regroup and rebuild their former communities, many of which had been highly successful agricultural settlements.

A Palestinian woman walks past the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, 2004 (file photo: Sharon Perry/Flash90)

A Palestinian woman walks past the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, 2004 (file photo: Sharon Perry/Flash90)

The former residents of the town of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip divided into two groups: Some chose the Samarian settlement of Ariel, while others opted to recreate their prior agricultural life in the area of the “Halutza dunes” in the Western Negev. At first, they settled temporarily in Moshav Yevul, part of “Hevel Shalom,” an area of agricultural towns founded by farmers who had been forced to leave their homes in the Sinai 1982, as part of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt.

Eventually, three new towns were erected in the middle of this inhospitable desert area: Bnei Netzarim for the residents of Netzarim; Naveh for those from Atzmona; and a third town, Shlomit. In 2006, Zion, Rivka and their young family moved from Kiryat Arba to Yevul, joining a growing community of former Netzarim residents. Transitioning from yeshiva student to farmer and builder, Zion oversaw the building of his own home and planted many dunams of organic olive and pomegranate trees.

The ripe stuff

This past week, Zion’s olive trees, having survived sand storms and rockets from Gaza — not to mention roaming, munchies-driven Egyptian camels that once crossed the border and descended on his groves — were ready for harvest. The obligatory three years of orla, when new fruits are forbidden, behind him, and entering the fourth year of neta revai, when the fruits are permitted after a ceremony in which they are redeemed, Zion began his harvest.

Planting the trees. Zion Leshem and a sapling, 2008 (photo credit: courtesy)

Planting the trees. Zion Leshem and a sapling, 2008 (photo credit: courtesy)

Some fifty dunams (over 1,000 trees) needed to be harvested and brought to the olive press in Netivot to be made into high-grade organic olive oil. At first, Zion attempted to utilize a machine that gripped the tree trunks and shook them, dislodging the olives from the branches. But that, unfortunately, proved too strong for the young trees, and damaged some of the trunks. So the decision was made to continue by hand.

Several members of our family journeyed from various points in Israel to Bnei Netzarim, joining veteran farmhands for a physically taxing but spiritually invigorating foray into the olive groves. Armed with baskets, nets and special combs on sticks we began our work early — well, sort of — in the morning, hoping to harvest as many trees as possible before the hot November (yes, that’s right) sun became too much for us.

Fresh olives of two types and a plethora of colors rained down into our nets and baskets. In the end, our efforts yielded two large bins, filled to the brim with the beautiful fruit of some 25 trees. As I write these words, the fruit of yesterday’s labor is being pressed into hundreds of liters of fresh, organic, healthy and tasty olive oil, grown and produced in an arid desert where only three years ago nothing existed but endless expanses of sand.

Spiritually invigorating. Zion Leshem's olives (photo credit: courtesy)

Spiritually invigorating. Zion Leshem’s olives (photo credit: courtesy)

After our hard day’s work, we were treated to a wonderful Shabbat in Bnei Netzarim, surrounded by children and grandchildren. To be in a beautiful, brand-new community, built by people of great faith, courage and self-sacrifice cannot but be inspiring. Paradoxically, the Halutza area, now home to three thriving new towns and an enormous variety of successful agricultural ventures, was once touted as a tract that might be given to the Palestinians in Gaza as part of a peace deal land-swap. Today that idea seems crazier than ever, mostly thanks to the dedicated pioneers who have once again, literally, “made the desert bloom.”

Finally, a small confession: The truth is that I don’t even like olives. This point causes me no small amount of angst, due to the olive’s status as one of the seven holy species of the Land of Israel. My yearly intake is generally limited to one olive consumed for ritual purposes on the night of Tu Bishvat. I do, however, enjoy olive oil and occasionally even mild forms of olive tapenade.

Who knows – maybe my experience harvesting olives will inspire me to eat them as well.